Born and bred on the Scottish Island of Islay, one would assume that whisky was in our guest’s blood, but it took a venture off island to bring him straight back.
Adam Hannett thought he was destined for a life of marine biology, but that was not to be. Lucky for the whisky lover in all of us, he found his calling as the Head Distiller at the legendary distillery of Bruichladdich. He’s here with us today to prove that passion and energy make for great whisky.
This episode originally aired on December 3, 2019.
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Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Adam Hannett. Just remember that I own the copyright in and to all content in and transcripts of Lush Life podcast, with all rights reserved, as well as my right of publicity. So if you want to use any of this, please email me!
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Susan: Thank you so much for being here! Let’s start with you telling me a little bit about where you grew up and your upbringing.
Adam: I grew up on Islay, which I think makes me one of the luckiest people in the world! Islay is a really small island with a really small community. It’s a beautiful, beautiful place to grow up. And people do live there – about 3200!
Susan: So you know every single one of them.
Adam: Pretty much. If you don’t know them that well, who they are and everything about them, then they know you. It’s a lovely community, I’m lucky because my parents moved to Islay before I was born, actually in 1982. They used to come up on holiday.
Susan: Where were they coming from?
Adam: Manchester, my parents are both from Manchester, the big city.
Susan: What were they doing there?
Adam: They were training to be nurses. That’s how they met a guy who was from Islay. He was training in Manchester as well. My dad and he were good friends and my dad would holiday on the island, through the seventies. Thenmy dad met my mum.
She came up on holiday too, and they just loved the lifestyle, the community, and the people. The story goes that they were sitting on the beach the last night before they were to go home, watching the sun go down, and they asked themselves why are they were going back to Manchester. That day they made the move. They returned to Manchester, sold the house and everything else, and relocated to Islay.
Susan: Were they were going to still be nurses there?
Adam: There is a hospital and community nurses, but at that time, there weren’t any jobs. My father was also a joiner and he did a bit of farming and fishing, which he loved, A completely different thing to being in Manchester! You find you’ve moved to Islay and your job now is to get up will the tides, about five o’clock in the morning, go out in the boat, and spend the whole day fishing. You’re learning something completely new and you’re seeing the whole Island from a different place.
Susan: It was really brave of them!
Adam: Yes it was. They just wanted to do it. They loved the community, they loved the lifestyle, they quietly went about their business. I’m one of four children. Yhey were raising the family then, my mum was looking after us all, which was a thankless task.
Susan: Good thing she was a nurse!
Adam: Yeah, absolutely. We grew up at the the very north end of the island in a beautiful old house. But it was very old house, and in the winter, the carpets would be hovering off the floor with the breeze blowing through it. We just had the most amazing childhood with memories of running around the beach, having an amazing time, making our own fun…
Susan: Just come back at seven for dinner, right?
Adam: Absolutely. Whatever you want. It was a fantastic place to grow up because there was complete freedom. Also I’m raising two daughters and it’s a wonderful thing to know that your kids are growing up and they’re confident speaking to lots of different kins of people, because they know everyone. It’s not as if they just have their own age group of friends. They speak to adults, they know everybody. It gives them a really good grounding.
Susan: Do you see them having the same childhood as you had?
Adam: I think it is different, but that’s a good thing. There are many, many similarities. They love sitting on the beach, rolling around the sand, having a great time, and the barbecues, and that’s the stuff we did when we were little.
I think there’s probably more for kids now. As the world moves on, people are trying to do more, have more activities and, so there are swimming lessons. I mean when I was young, we we didn’t actually have a swimming pool. We learned to swim in the sea, which was great.
My dad was a really good swimmer. He did a lot of swimming training for kids. It’s great to look back on the pictures now and you see him with a wetsuits and all these kids in Speedos, blue because it’s so cold because they were swimming in the sea.
Susan: A heated pool must be such a luxury for you.
Adam: Absolutely. The swimming pool is an old bonded warehouse that used to be part of a distillery and it’s actually heated. The water is heated with the waste heat from the distillery. So depending on what the activities are at the distillery, you can see when the best day to go swimming.
Susan: I love it.
Adam: Depending on the mashing schedule, you know when to go swimming, which is quite unique.
Susan: Did you always think you would stay there?
Adam: I don’t know. I think when I was young, I didn’t really think too much about it. I never really knew what I wanted to be. I just had no idea. When I left school, I went off to university and I didn’t really enjoy it that much.
Susan: Where were you at university?
Adam: I went to Aberdeen. When I was at school, I really enjoyed biology. I had a really good biology teacher and then I went off to study Marine Biology at Aberdeen. I naively had these visions of doing research at the Great Barrier Reef, sitting on a catamaran, having a wonderful time in the sunshine and watching fish swimming around. And the more I was studying, the more I was realizing that I’m probably going to end up in a lab if I get a job at all.
I was terrible at chemistry and, so I thought, do I want to spend four years of my life studying for something that I don’t really have a passion for? At least I’ve tried it and I know it’s not for me.
I came home and didn’t really know what I was going to do. For a while I was a bit aimless, just doing odds and ends. My dad said to me, “Look you really should think about what you’re going to do with your life. In the meantime, try getting a job in the distillery, because, if nothing else, you’ll get a bottle of whisky every once in a while.”
At that time, my parents were looking after an islander who had cancer and his wife was working for Bruichladdich Distillery. She was the woman in the office who kind of made everything happen.
She suggested that if I were looking for work, I should come down and meet everyone and see if I could do something there. Despite what she was going through, she still wanted to help me.
I ended up starting at the distillery and I just fell in love with whisky. The first day I started working, I just felt this amazing connection to the place and its story. It had been closed down for a long time and had reopened and there was passion and there was energy and there was this freedom and this pioneering spirit around that story. I loved being part of that and I was just a tour guide!
Susan: You’re the first person from Islay I’ve met. Was whisky just everywhere? Were you conscious of it? Was it a big part of your life before the job?
Adam: I was born in 1983 and, through the 80s, it wasn’t the best time for making whisky. Today, single malt is hugely fashionable, everyone’s really interested. But single malt wasn’t really that popular back then. It was all about blended whisky.
The Islay distilleries would be producing most of the spirit they made for blends, because of the character it has. It’s fantastic for blended whisky, bringing them more body and flavor. The 80s was a time when there was too much production, so they were closing distilleries.
Susan: It was vodka time.
Adam: Well, I think it was just predicated on how much they were going to need in years to come, they would make loads one year and then had to cut back the next year. It was boom and bust. Production was up and down. There were no visitor centers. There was no way to welcome tourists. It was a production facility without any access in the same way as there is now. We didn’t really know too much about whisky. We knew there were distilleries everywhere and that they made whisky.
Susan: Did you know a lot of people, friends or friends’ parents work at these distilleries?
Adam: Yes, absolutely. A lot of the folks I went to school with, their parents were involved in distilling, But because we were new to Islay, we didn’t have that distilling connection. Also the jobs were always really sought after because they were steady. If you’re farming or fishing and the weather’s bad, you don’t go out, you don’t earn money.
Susan: Do you think this is why your dad pointed you to a distillery job, instead of joinery or nursing?
Adam: I think so. I mean I looked at a lot of different things, and my parents had been great because they never pushed me in any direction. It’s always been that I could do what I wanted to do. I think he was pushing me toward distilleries because it was going to be steady and he could see that was a future. I think the distilleries were taken for granted. They were everywhere, so you didn’t necessarily know what was special about them then,
Susan: Were you a whisky drinker or was your family?
Adam: No, not really. My dad is one of four brothers and my uncles would always come up for holidays. They loved coming up to Islay and they all loved whisky. Whenever they came over, the whiskies came out of the cupboard. They’d put out all the different whiskies from each of the distilleries on the table to taste.
I remember the smell of the whiskies, but I was never drawn to it. It was always really strong.
But like most people, when you’re young, you’re tasting whisky, you’re learning about drinking, and you may have over-indulged slightly drinking whisky, so then you’re a bit more reticent to get stuck into a bottle again.
It was great when I started at the distillery, I met Jim McEwan, the famous master distiller, and immediately that passion was ignited. As a tour guide, I had to lead people through tastings and talk about whisky and explain that what it is we were doing. Once you taste it and you understand the story of a whisky and how it came into being and how it’s made, you appreciate it an awful lot better.
For example, there’s no right or wrong way to enjoy whisky. You can add water, you add ice, whatever you want to do, as long as you enjoy it!
I started adding water to whisky. It opens the flavors out and I started thinking, that is was really interesting. I think that the education in whisky was really important for me. Mixed with the passion that was ignited in the distillery, yeah, I’m absolutely a whisky drinker now!
Susan: And of course the story of Bruichladdich itself, from being shut down to revitalized…
Adam: I, obviously, have told the story of Bruichladdich so many times, and you almost forget how special it is sometimes. The distillery was closed in 1994 and potentially that could have been it. Who knows what would have happened with the single malt after that. Maybe it would’ve reopened, maybe it would’ve stayed closed. Bruichladdich was always a whisky for blending predominantly, so again, when you’re making whisky for blends, you could use it quite cheaply.
You’re not going to buy amazing first filled sherry barrels from Spain and you’re going to reuse casks that you’ve already got in the company. It was always a bit unloved. Look at Port Ellen distillery, another distillery of Islay, that was demolished in 1983 and a maltings was built on the site to provide malt for the other distilleries.
Diageo owns Port Ellen and the stocks of whisky that were made when they demolished the distillery were actually very valuable, because you cannot replicate that whisky. You see bottles of Port Ellen now going for thousands of pounds. You think, “Wow, that’s much easier than actually bringing the distillery back to life.”
The stocks at Bruichladdich are quite healthy. So it could have been that the company went ahead and demolished, then sold off the stocks and made money that way. We’ve got other distilleries in our portfolio, so it could have been that in 1994, when the distillery closed, that could have been that.
But it was reopened! There was a group of guys including Jim McEwan, who brought it back from the dead. They brought the old team back – guys who hadn’t retired, who still wanted to return. Some young people came in as well.
My boss now, Allan Logan, who’s the fourth generation in his family to be making whisky, was about to leave Islay because he couldn’t get a job. He was a painter and decorator, and there wasn’t much for him here. He was going to move to Glasgow, and then he heard Bruichladdich was going to go be bought and JIm going to be Head Distiller. Jim used to coach Allen at football when he was a kid. That’s when Allan got started. He was there to help renovate the distillery and now, 18 years later, he’s the Production Director.
Susan: How many years later were you hired?
Adam: I started in 2004 and it opened in 2001.
Susan: So pretty early on…
Adam: Yeah, absolutely.
Susan: How long did it take them to get ready for tours?
Adam: The shop had been converted from a warehouse with basically a concrete floor and some lights added in. There was a few bottles to sell and they did some tours. It was all quite small.
Susan: Were people were coming?
Adam: Not many, but some. And it was getting busier, so they a shop and created a base for the tourists, because you had to climb up these old stairs to get around and that wasn’t really gonna work for everyone.
It was great being there early on, watching the distillery go from strength to strength.
In 2012 was bought by Remy Cointreau and the financial backing is fantastic. They support 100% of what we do and they invest continually. They believe the right things are being done.
Go back to 2004 and they really started with nothing. There’s a famous story about Duncan McGillivray, then the distillery manager. You’d be working in the warehouse rolling bottles and if your gloves wore thin, Duncan would give you either a left or a right. He would have loved to give you both, but there was no money! But they did have passion and energy and we we knew that we were working towards something really good for the community.
When the distillery closed down, people lost their jobs and this affected a small community. Not just only the people who were working there, but the whole surroundings. So bringing it back to life meant that there was a focus on Islay and everyone who was heavily involved in making whisky, for example, encouraging farmers to grow barley for us. You know were doing the right thing.
Susan: And you felt that the minute you started?
Absolutely. Yeah. Absolutely. The first day I started and remember, I’m only a temporary tour guide, Jim called me up to the office and explained the history and what they were trying to achieve. Also what he expected of me as a tour guide and how I also represent the distillery.
You couldn’t help feel that passion. Here is a man who was working at Bowmore for more than 40 odd years. He’d gone from an apprentice cooper at 15, when he left school, to Brand Ambassador, traveling the world, education everyone about Islay whisky.
He gave all that up, even though he could have happily done that for a few more years, retired and been very comfortable. He gave up everything to start again, because he believed in the quality of Bruichladdich.
He’s a true Ileach (person from Islay) through and through, and he was going to sacrifice almost everything he had to do something good for the Island. For example, we built a bottling hall so we could bottle and provide employment, especially for disabled people who might not be able to get a job elsewhere. It makes no financial sense to bottle your own whisky on the island. You bring all the empty bottles across, then fill them up and then send them all the way back again. But it’s about the community, doing the right thing. Also for the whisky as it gives you control – you can use Islay spring water and not a Glasgow tap water. You can do it exactly the why you wanted to do it.
Susan: So you were a tour guide for a while and instilled with that passion? Did you know where you wanted to go within the company or did that just kind of happen?
Adam: An element of both. When I was a tour guide, I loved telling the story and meeting people. It wasn’t just a 45 minute tour. You could take hours doing a tour if you had the right people who were willing to listen.
After a while, people would always ask what I wanted to do.I was just happy being here. But the more people would ask the question, I started thinking that I’d really like to do something else in the distillery. Eventually, I left the distillery in 2005.
Susan: Was that after tour guiding?
Adam: Yes, then quickly realized it was probably the stupidest thing I’ve ever done. I should have stuck in it and work harder.
Susan: Did you go to a different island?
Adam: I stayed on Islay. I was in a relationship and we were going to move away and the relationship didn’t really work out. I’d already handed in my notice and I remember seeing if there was any chance I could stay there. They said they had just employed somebody else. These are the decisions you make.
Susan: You were young. Who doesn’t want to try many things? So how long were you away?
Adam: It was about year actually. I was still working on the island as a landscape gardener. I was working with a fantastic group of people and we had loads of fun. We’d be cutting grass for people and distilleries. I loved that job. It was fantastic, but it wasn’t going to last forever.
Susan: Were you looking at Bruichladdich going I miss you, I miss you?
Adam: Absolutely. Absolutely. And actually there was a moment when I thought I’d better start looking at other options. There was an advert in the local newspaper for a job at a distillery, a production job, but another distillery. And I thought, fantastic, I won’t be tourguiding, I’ll be making whisky. I got an interview and it was really good. I was offered the job and I turned it down. And the reason being, although it was an amazing distillery and great job. Of course, again, I was young and stupid, but it didn’t feel like Bruichladdich. And I thought, do I accept this job? Which, of course, I should have, with hindsight, I probably should’ve done.
I didn’t take the job because it wasn’t Bruichladdich. I was being idealistic. It didn’t feel right. So I went back and I spoke to Jim and he said that since I had worked there before and worked hard that they could give me a few months work. It was coming up to whisky festival time and there was loads of stuff to do to get prepared for that. So I did, I started working there. I knew I had three months.
Susan: You’re like, I’m going to put my head down and do anything they ask!
Adam: You are absolutely right. I did. I just worked hard. I loved it. And it was rolling barrels and working with the guys. It was absolutely fantastic.
Susan: Were you counting down the three months thinking what’s going to happen?
Adam: I was making plans and thinking, if it doesn’t happen, I don’t want to find myself in these ridiculous situations again, I’ve got to have a plan. Then one day Duncan asked me to come up to his office.
Susan: Either this is good or bad.
Adam: Yeah. I thought it was going to be, look, thanks very much. That’s it. But he asked me what mt plans were and if I fancied staying. I tried to play it a little bit cool, but it was like music to me. They had a job as a warehouseman and they needed someone to train up on shift. At that time, they were running two shifts a day or two, eight hour shifts. So from six in the morning until 10 at night, they needed to produce a little bit more and needed somebody else to go on shift. I was working the warehouse and got the opportunity to train as management.
All of a sudden from one job, I can go to two jobs. I took that opportunity and I loved it. At that time, I couldn’t drive. I hadn’t done my driving lessons. I lived about eight miles from the distillery. I’d be cycling eight miles a day, because I loved it. I would have walked there, swam there or whatever. I would’ve got there because it was great to be able to actually make whisky. That was a tremendous thing for me. I’m so grateful to Duncan and Jim for believing in me, giving me a chance, a second chance.
It’s something I look back on often as Jim and Duncan have retired and some of the guys who taught me how to make whisky have retired. I think the opportunity we had was created because of the passion and hard work these guys put in, the sacrifice to make that distillery a success.
When we had no money and the situation was precarious, week to week, month to month, the distillery survived because of the drive, the will and the passion of these people. They’ve instilled it in me and given me the opportunity to learn how to make whisky, and showed me the kindness.
Susan: Well, if they hadn’t seen the passion in you.
Adam: I think it’s both ways.
Susan: Now working in a distillery and actually making the spirit itself are two different things. How did you find out that you even had the mouth, the tongue, I don’t know the right words for it. That ability to taste and know what is good and right for Bruichladdich.
Adam: I think that’s down to experience, to be honest. It’s one of the great things working alongside Jim. Jim was Master Distiller. He was the blend that put all the whiskies together. Whether we make Bruichladdich, Port Charlotte, Octomore, whether it’s Islay grown, all the detail we put in is really is down to him and Duncan and the guys to implement.
These ideas – like sourcing barley from different places to understand the flavor – it’s down to Jim. The cask it’s matured in and and how long it matures, where it matures, what strength you fill the cast, every the detail, it was down to Jim.
I’m worked alongside them because you’re working closely as a small company. When it comes to blending or creating a whisky, you know Jim’s there to tell you what cast to use, what to do. We’d go down and taste and you start picking up the language, how to describe flavors.
You start picking up when you taste things he’s talking about. Like when he says that there’s this nice citrus lemon notes in here, you start to pick that up. You start to build up this kind of database, of what those ages of whisky are, what the cast types are, what the flavors are.
You start to really intuitively know what whisky produced by Bruichladdich is and what it should be and what it could be. Really just by working alongside Jim, you pick it up, that experience. I don’t think I’ve got an exceptional palate, but I’ve got the experience of working in Bruichladdich and tasting and nosing.
It’s like anything you can train for, you can improve. So I spent my time nosing and tasting and picking up the language and deepening my knowledge of Bruichladdich. So that when Jim retired, he felt that he could retire, because there was somebody there who was able to step in and take over from him. It’s an interesting one because I don’t think I’ve got an exceptional nose for whisky.
Susan: I think you’re being shy.
Adam: But I wouldn’t say I was born with a gift or anything like that. People always say, obviously you’re born into it. And I think if you’ve got passion, you can prove you can train. There’s got to be something there at the beginning, but I think for me, I’d been working there for 15 years, That 15 years experience has gotten me to where I am today.
I believe that when you’re tasting whisky and you’re leading a tasting, the worst thing you can do is start telling people, you should taste this, you should smell that. Because really everyone’s going to come at it with their own language, their own experiences. If I go to China and I’m talking about shortbread, honey notes. The people in China are going to be asking what is shortbread. It’s not fair for me to kind of give them this language of what I think.
It’s about that shared experience. And for me, it’s more about the story of a whisky and how it feels and the texture, the palate. That’s equally as important as the flavors I think you should taste. I’ll write tasting notes of whiskies that we make. I’ll say what what I think. But it’s great to have a conversation with people when they pick up their own flavors and their own style of whisky.
Susan: Let’s talk about the whisky! The original is unpeated. I am sure you had the recipes when it shut down. How long did it take before Jim, or all of you thought, okay. we have what we think or what we know is Bruichladdich?
Adam: Well, that’s interesting because when it was reopened, we had the original stocks made up until 1994.
Susan: Everything was still there?
Adam: Yes, we had this old stock. When we started making whisky in 2000, we weren’t going to release that for, what has to be a minimum of, three years.
So that’s three years. What are you going to do with all that time? Five years really is the minimum you’d maybe want to do. So basically Jim had to go through the stocks in the warehouses and start to pull together whisky made from the age profile of the flavor profiles. In the early days, that’s what he did.
He was creating whiskies from what was there. The guys who’d been making whisky before it closed, they came back, so they knew how to make it. They knew how to run the stills. Jim would be nosing, tasting that spirit, making small changes to get what he felt was the best quality of flavor.
Susan: Not just to rehash the same thing as before?
Adam: Exactly. Because if we just couldn’t repeat what was happening before. We didn’t sell any whisky to blenders anymore, so it was all going to be for single malt for ourselves. When you’re making whisky for blenders, it’s volume and speed you’re looking for. When you’re making a single malt for yourself, there’s nowhere to hide. It’s not gonna be mixed in with anything else. It has to be perfect.
So that was what was really driving things.I must say the spirit that we inherited, we still have some of the bottles now, it’s always been distilled very, very well, so there wasn’t really much work we needed to do. Maybe the quality of cast, but if you take that spirit and put it into a good cask, that whisky starts to develop because it’s in contact with good wood and it’s maturing, it’s developing well.
There weren’t huge changes.They were focusing on single malt with Bruichladdich, using only on Scottish barley or Islay barley, and being creative. We also decided to make heavily peated whisky as well.
We had made Port Charlotte and then we made Octomore because we wanted to push the boundaries and see what happened.
Susan: Was that at the same time?
Adam: Yes, straight away. You know, Islay is renowned for its peated whisky. So we made both, Bruichladdie and Port Charlotte. Port Charlotte was so good, and the peat was sitting so beautifully around the spirit. We asked ourselves how peaty can you make a whisky?
So the next year, we created Octomore purely to see how peaty you could make a whisky. So that spirit of adventure was there in everything we did. We never thought there’s a marketplace somewhere we need to fill with a product.
It was just purely experimental for the joy of distilling and the joy of experimentation. We still retain that – we make rye whisky, because, again, we want to explore that flavor. We’ll quadruple the still whisky because we want to understand how that flavor comes about as well.
That passion for distilling, I think, still guides in what we do. The quality of the spirit we have inherited is fantastic and, by improving the wood quality, you will make amazing whiskies.
We’ve just released a whisky, the last whisky from the 1988 vintage, and it is a beautiful, beautiful whisky. You look at those whiskies and you think, I hope in years to come, the whisky that we’re making today, it’s as good as that. We’d like to think that it’s going to be better because we’ve been more focused on ingredients and put more love into the distillery and there’s no pressure to make it fast. It’s about preserving this amazing quality of spirit. It’s just a fascinating thing to see what’s going to happen in the future.
Susan: Are you playing around with some new things?
Adam: Always! We are always playing around with new things. I think there’s always innovation at Bruichladdich, we’re always releasing new whiskies. Our focus with Bruichladdich is now on the variety of barley and where that’s grown and understanding the provenance and the terroir of whisky. It makes perfect sense that the flavors you distill come from the grain and the soil.
It’s fascinating when you get talking about it, and it’s such an amazing thing to be able to talk about. It might be difficult to do, it’s probably the reason most people don’t do it, but for us, it’s a unique thing and it’s a special thing. We love having that conversation about the fundamental ingredients of whisky and how it comes into being.
Susan: Well, you’ve made me super thirsty. Can we go have a dram?
Adam: I think we should! Let’s go and crack a bottle of opening a bottle of Octomore.